Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Dancing About Architecture

The last few nights I’ve been feverishly (literally; I’ve felt like crap, although I seem to be doing better today) working on a presentation that I have to deliver next weekend at the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am supposed to play resident music critic and talk for an hour and a half on the role of the music critic and how to approach musical criticism from a Christian perspective. My audience will be a bunch of writers, academics, musicians, and rabid music fans, most of whom will know a lot more about trends in contemporary popular music than I do. In the words of every critic’s favorite band Radiohead, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”

At this point I really don’t know how this is going to come together. I know a few things; the title of my workshop, for instance. It’s “Dancing About Architecture.” It’s from a semi-famous quote from singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, which is: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

The thing is, Elvis is mostly right. Music goes far beyond a “message” or a “theme” (you hear that, CCM world?) In fact, music affects us so viscerally and so subjectively that trying to summarize its impact or reduce its power to a few principles seems hopelessly misguided and ineffective. It’s like stating that Moby Dick is a book about a white whale. It’s true, but it misses the whole point.

And the point (I think) is that music has the power to move us, shape us, change the way we see ourselves and God and the world around us. And it short-circuits the whole objective, cognitive process. How can I explain to people that Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue -- an album of all-instrumental jazz made by a non-Christian – has led to one of the most profound worship experiences in my life, that it reaches me in deep places that no doctrinal catechism can ever reach, that there are moments of such intense beauty there that the only proper response is to fall to my knees and thank God for the wonder of His creation? And how can I explain that another person – a bright, spiritually aware person, at that – can hear the same album and be totally unmoved? What is the mystery there? How do you fathom that, and how do you communicate it to a group of people from widely different backgrounds and beliefs?

Here’s another quote I really like from critic/enfante terrible Lester Bangs, one of the first rock critics, founder of Creem Magazine, and the subject of the film Almost Famous from a few years back. I really like it, although it may be a bit over-the-top, particularly for my Christian audience. I’m tempted to use it anyway because it cuts so close to the bone.

"Rock writing is, and nearly always has been, the trade of simps, wimps, displaced machos, brats and saps; of asskissers of the ruling class; of fuddyduddy archivists with cobwebs on their specs; of pathetic idealizers of a lost youth no one has ever — even approximately — experienced or possessed; of sycophantic apologists for chi-chi trends, musical and extramusical alike, without which — so they've always claimed — "rock is dead"; of binary yes/no cheeses with the cognitive wherewithal of vinyl, shrinkwrap, the physical column-inch."

There is so much that rings true there. There is a herd mentality that characterizes much of contemporary popular music criticism. And there are a few rules that apply: The weirder the music is, the better it is. New is good; old is bad, unless it’s from the 1960s. There is an accepted and generally understood canon of rock music that is above reproach, and woe to the critic who dares to question the canon, for he shall be excommunicated from the simpering fold, and shall dwell in outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth and playing of Abba records.

I encounter people all the time – Baby Boomers like myself who were raised on The Beatles and The Stones and Motown and Dylan – who bemoan the current state of popular music, who are stuck in some bizarre Woodstock timewarp where they’re convinced that no decent music has been released since Led Zeppelin IV (ah, the golden age of Roman numerals) and that it’s all been downhill since John married Yoko.

I feel bad for these folks, but I don’t believe them. It’s easy enough for it to happen. You get out of college, you get a real job, and you stop paying attention, and eventually you focus on fertilizer debates with your suburban neighbors (Ortho Weed ‘n Feed: Better For Your Lawn Than Scott’sTurfbuilder?) and golf and your investment portfolio instead of some hot new band from London or NYC. But I still don’t believe them. I don’t believe them because I’ve never grown up, at least in that sense (my wife could perhaps list others) and don’t want to, and because I hear new music all the time that still provides that same visceral thrill that I experienced when I first heard Led Zeppelin IV or The White Album.

It’s the same reaction. It’s the same commingling of excitement and awe and (God forbid, this coming from a depressive type) just plain joy that accompanies the discovery of some musician or some band who says the same old sweet nothings that rock ‘n roll has said for fifty years, but says them in a way, either musically or lyrically or both, that it all sounds fresh and vital and new. I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about at Calvin College. And that’s probably what I will talk about at Calvin College. But I surely don’t know how to make a systematic presentation out of that. So I suspect that I’m going to play music and tell stories. I don’t know of any other way to communicate the ineffable.


teddy dellesky said...
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teddy dellesky said...

i'll pray for your health and that god will give you words and ideas that will reach your audience. i'm excited for you andy. this is a great opportunity for you on a personal level to put into words the interconnectedness of the two things that you are very passionate about (faith and music). i wish i could go, but will be out of town. thanks for the offer. i feel as if its a missed opportunity for me to get to know you and kate. there will be other times...

jlee said...

what you just said about sums it up.
tell of the wonder in music that, in it's creative essence , replicates God's artistry.
i will pray that God will give you inspiration & practicality together.
i know teddy really wanted to go, but we will have to cease on other oppurtunities.

danthress said...

"I’d like to believe that God is wrapped up in that process. In fact, I know He is."

That's your starting point. Now prove it. I've been waiting for someone to write this.

Don't you believe that God orchestrated the resurection the of Nick Drake's music?

danthress said...

Just finished reading your piece on Nick Drake

I've been schooled in every way. Thank you.

Are we anymore enlighted about depression 30 years later when someone like Elliott Smith passes through our hands?

teddy dellesky said...

interesting query on the reserection of drake's music. love him by the way, probably more that elliott smith. great, sad composers.

Andy Whitman said...

Thanks for your comments, Teddy, Jamie, and Dan. I appreciate the encouragement, and I'm really looking forward to the conference.

Prove it, eh, Dan? That's the trick, isn't it? I can't prove it. It's highly subjective, and one person's sublime spiritual musical epiphany is another person's grating noise.

Regardless of the specific music that causes the reaction, I do believe that almost everyone can point to one or more moments in their lives where music has had tremendous transformative power. It literally changes us; it can alter our moods, it can lift us up or bring us down; at its best it provides glimpses of God, and can usher us into His presence. I believe that. And it happens to me fairly regularly. Last night at our small group meeting we talked about joy, a word that causes me to choke, particularly given the often cheesy connotations and trite interpretations that Christians put on the term. But I get joy. I really do understand it. And I understand it primarily because of music. That's how powerful it is.

But there's no easy three-step process to prove that. From a theological standpoint, I can talk about the image of God, the impact of the fall, streams of living water and digging empty wells in the desert, common grace, the nature of creativity as embodied by the Hebrew word "bara" and the Greek word "kitzi." Yada yada yada. All of that forms the grid -- the worldview -- through which we hear and understand music as Christians, and I'll probably end up talking about those things to some extent. But there's a part of this process -- a large part, in fact -- that cannot be systematically expounded without squeezing the very life out of it.

It's mystery. It's wonderful. It can't be proven, but it's very real, and it's very powerful.

danthress said...

Thank you. Actually I don't need proof. I just need more words to help me understand what I've felt for decades. When I first met Jeff C he explained it this way: "Music is A Ramp to God." That changed my life. I was so liberated by that comment. About a year later when I was practicing, which is sometimes like a Keith Jarrett solo concert, (just playing trying to get the music out), God told me that what I was doing was worshiping. Again, total liberation. Then while playing with Michael Hansen at Worship 63, just a duet format, I realized that what I try to do when I play is to kiss God's cheek. I try to get up in that rarified air. Big moment 3. Attaching words to these moments has helped me understand my faith in a major way.

I feel that God gave me a word for you this morning:

Beauty burns inside of all of us

Isn't that what you write about? What you hear. what you long to discover?

btw: I've been so blessed by people who write about music. I know the popular thing to do is to berate the process, but music writers have been very, very good to me. I love what you do.